Le’ Notes #31: Theoretical interpretations of Indonesia’s politics

This post discusses the theoretical interpretations of Indonesian politics from the New Order to the ongoing Reformasi era.

The first leg of my journey starts with understanding the different theoretical interpretations of Indonesia’s political system. Most of the scholarly work on Indonesia is focused on the New Order: its genesis, peak, and violent crumble. The market for Indonesian history is practically saturated with New Order stuff with a bit of Sukarno on the side and the colonial and ancient times (the lattermost nobody really cares about at this point, but is slightly important nonetheless). In this summary, I’ll go through the various schools of interpretation, which were mostly conducted by Western academics.

A fair warning first though. While some may show disdain for cultural relativism, or in other words, “It’s cultural, deal with it”, ignoring cultural influences when examining Indonesia’s politics will only give us a half-baked analysis which may sound plausible in the ivory tower, but crumbles when it enters the field of policy-making. Culture (or cultures) is pervasive in Indonesian life, including political life, and to some extent is inseparable. To discount it would be folly.

The nation/state continuity

Benedict Anderson

The first is the “nation/state continuity” argument is proposed by Benedict Anderson, a reputable Indonesianist. In his volume, Language and Power, Anderson explores the influences of Javanese culture in political life. While that’s the central theme of the book (I particularly liked his analysis on power as a concept and what it means in a Javanese setting), his political interpretation of Indonesia’s system is that of a continuity of the state and a discontinuity of the nation. 

Indonesia’s not a nation-state; it’s a state-nation! – paraphrased from Leo Suryadinata, a quip from his lecture during class

In Anderson’s view, the concept of the “nation-state” is the conjoining of two different streams. First, we have the “nation”, which includes the imagined communities of people. A nation is bound by similar, shared characteristics such as language, religion, or even ideologies. There’s an Islamic brotherhood which resembles a global community of Muslims, but there are only a handful of Islamic states, where Islam serves as the crux of the political and governmental system. In Indonesia’s case, the nation of Indonesia was never there in the first place. There were very distinct regional identities, especially prior to the “political Enlightenment” period which was pioneered by Budi Utomo in 1908, such as Jong Java (youth of Java), Jong Celebes (youth of Sulawesi), and other localised communities. The idea of a greater Indonesian identity that surpassed these regional identities was incomprehensible, until the Youth Pledge of October 1928, where these youth organisations pledged a single, national identity: Indonesian.

Next, we have the concept of the “state”. In Anderson’s view, the state is a constructed political system that operates within a predefined territory. Its existence cannot be justified on its own; it needs a people to justify its existence either through force or a social contract. The “state” of Indonesia actually has older roots than the “nation”. Here, Anderson speaks of the Dutch colonial government as being the roots of the “state” in Indonesia. It carried out the functions of the state such as wealth extraction, security (or insecurity), and foreign relations. It justified itself using mostly force, but also through brokering deals with the priyayi (the elites; also a subtle insult for feeling entitled) and regional politicians.

Now, when we look at the sweeping wave of nationalist fervor brought to life by Sukarno, we see a challenge to the dominance of the state. Sukarno was by no means a product of the “state”; he was born within the “nation” and grew up in the “nation”. The “nation” managed to overpower the “state” and fully gained independence in 1949. While the nationalists succeeded in grasping power, they couldn’t rebuild the “state” in their image. Sukarno was more of a man of grandiose; he squandered the country’s money on gaudy projects and continued to challenge traces of neo-imperialism in Southeast Asia. His fervor would become his downfall, as he failed to manage the rivalry between the Communist Party and military. In the words of Jusuf Wanandi in his political memoir, Shades of Grey:

It was a time filled with tension and conflict: Sukarno used mass movements and mass mobilisation as his strategy, not institution building. He preferred waves of street demonstrations over government. He overturned the relatively liberal democracy of the 1950s, replacing it with an authoritarian regime centred around him and his Guided Democracy. (p. 19)

Anderson interpreted the New Order as a resurrection of the old Dutch colonial “state”. Suharto, unlike Sukarno, was born within the state apparatus and a powerful one, the military. He emerged to challenge the nationalists and sought to reconstruct the “state” to repress elements of the “nation”. Suharto injected the military into the “nation’s” social life to enforce the notion of the “state”. This was done also through education, where the history taught was his politically-correct version that vilified the nationalists of the past and sought to build a “nation” in the image of the “state”. Suharto also justified the existence of the “state” through economic development, which satisfied many of his constituents. In a sense, he did what Sukarno never could: build.

We see that the “state” and “nation” are more often in conflict to see which is dominant. However, is the New Order really a resurrection of the old, repressive, and vilified Dutch colonial state? Anderson believes that the New Order was predatory and extractive, just like the old Dutch colonial “state”. But this is a rather monistic view of the New Order. While Suharto was an authoritarian, he was not at all totalitarian as Anderson describes. There were still elements of pluralism within the bureaucracy of the New Order.

The bureaucratic-pluralist interpretations



Critics of Anderson’s monistic views of the New Order fall under what I call the bureaucratic-pluralist camp. These guys basically think of the New Order not as a monolithic construct, rather as a collection of bureaucracies struggling to curry favours with Suharto to advance their interests.

The patrimonial state

One related concept to this interpretation is patrimonialism, which basically means you need to be close to the head of state or people in power to get your way. This is reflected in Javanese values, where the leader would possess power in abundance that nothing would progress without his express consent. Hence, you need to brown-nose the leader if you wanted things done. Put in a bureaucratic context, this means that the different institutions within the system would need to brown-nose Pak Harto to get anything done, and Pak Harto would need to maintain these institutional loyalties by any means necessary. As Crouch [paywall] observed, patrimonialism requires a politically homogenous elite and a politically disengaged population. Suharto had these elements, however, towards the end of his rule, he couldn’t sufficiently control his networks.

Crouch also observed the economic, social, and political limits of Suharto’s patrimonial state. Suharto’s economic policies, which were crafted by a group of technocrats educated at Berkeley, brought significant economic development to Indonesia which resulted in an industrial boom and upwards social mobility. As Indonesia’s industries developed, foreign investors tended to look for stability in the legal structure as opposed to cutting deals through patronage links, which were much more uncertain and volatile. As Max Weber wrote,

Industrial capitalism must be able to count on the continuity, trustworthiness, and objectivity of the legal order and on the rational predictable functioning of legal and administrative agencies. – Max Weber, cited in Crouch, 1979, p. 580


Suharto’s regime brought up a new middle class in Indonesia, where several fault lines emerged. For a majority of his rule, he tended to alienate political Islam groups. These groups, who wanted Islam as the foundation of Indonesia, started to show signs of dissent nearing the end of Suharto’s rule. Oppressed intellectual groups were also among the many groups who started to want change, along with disadvantaged indigenous businessmen. Suharto’s rule was further weakened by continuous in-fighting between the elites, especially the military, which threatened patrimonial links.

Bureaucratic pluralism

While there are many versions of this particular interpretation, the general thread that ties them together is a subtle rejection of patrimonialism, arguing that Suharto’s power was not as far-spreading as patrimonialists would have assumed. Instead, there was a degree of plurality within the bureaucracy, with Suharto playing more of a consultative role in the intricate play of institutions rather than an authoritative one.

Juan Linz, in Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, brought up the idea of limited pluralism, a key feature in authoritarian regimes. We see parallels to patrimonialism, in sense that the supreme leader allows a limited dispersion of power among his subjects, with some having more than others, but ultimate power still resided in the hands of the supreme leader. How power was distributed among the bureaucracy became the central issue.

Jackson, in a chapter in the book, Political Power and Communications in Indonesiaposits that a bureaucratic polity model explains New Order Indonesia. It is distinguishable by a degree of isolation of policy-makers to the social and political forces outside the elite circle. In other words, policy-making in the New Order is assumed to be isolated from its domestic context, although not necessarily isolated from international events. The main idea is that policy is decided based on rational-legal ties between an elite, sitting in a tower somewhere, oblivious to whatever is happening outside and caring only about the power plays happening within the inner circle. These close-knit circle of policy-makers are more influential than the institutions they may represent.

Another interpretation comes from Emmerson [paywall], who argues that Suharto’s Indonesia represents a form of bureaucratic pluralism, which draws from Linz’s limited pluralism thesis. By looking at military penetration in offices, Emmerson found that the military, as a part of the oligarchy that exercises power through the bureaucracy, were only stationed in ministries related to strategic interests e.g. Defence; while ministries responsible for economic development were left alone and allowed to act with limited autonomy (i.e. their objectives being “programmed” by the top management). Moreover, the ministries “infiltrated” by the military were in command of a smaller portion of the budget. This would suggest that Suharto and his military cronies’ influence may not be as pervasive as initially thought.

Dwight King then attempted to implement Linz’s postulation into an Indonesian context. In a chapter in Intepreting Indonesian Politics, King described New Order politics as being a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime, which he described as

…a distinct, modern, relatively stable pattern of political domination that emerges under certain historical, environmental, and political conditions and which has, by virtue of its structure and process, remarkable capacity to maintain itself and control various potentially destabilising pressures prouduced during modernisation. (p. 176)

Similar to previous explanations, the centre of analysis is still on the ruling elite and their political antics. Some of the characteristics of a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime include:

  • Ultimate authority resides in the hands of oligarchs, rather than a single, patrimonial leader. Suharto is positioned as an authoritative oligarch.
  • The prevalence of a technocratic mentality. As Emmerson’s research found, the military often left economic policy to the technocrats and didn’t try to interfere too much in their work.
  • A willingness to work in a system where the masses are largely apathetic and the elites don’t like the idea of having to mobilise the masses. In other words, the authoritarian government prefers an environment of relative stability and isolation, like Jackson’s bureaucratic polity model suggests.
  • There are attempts to achieve limited pluralism, especially by controlling the opposition and silencing dissent. Oligarchs are allowed to pursue their own interests, but only if they’re aligned with Suharto’s interests.

Post-Reformasi interpretations

Sejarah Singkat Reformasi di Indonesia.JPG
Students occupy the House of Representatives in the 1998 riots.

The fall of Suharto dramatically changed the political landscape, which also introduced new approaches to understanding Indonesia’s politics.

Old oligarchs

Despite having been ousted, oligarchs continue to remain in Indonesia’s political landscape. They continue to wield political and economic clout, evidenced by their involvement in political parties. Thus, we see a continuation of the New Order patronage politics. Newcomers to the political system need to get the help of these old oligarchs to enter the system, and once they’re inside, they would tend to continue the reign of oligarchs. A documentary titled Mega’s Man (trailer shown below) follows the connections of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s husband, Taufik Kiemas. In it, we can see traces of New Order politics. Despite there being political parties, these parties are often backed by oligarchs, whom they rely upon for funding. Taufik Kiemas was one of the biggest benefactors of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), and became even more powerful once Megawati took office. As described, Taufik was a “power broker par excellence”.  

This system remains today and became especially vivid during the 2014 presidential elections. Joko Widodo (now incumbent president) had to seek help from Megawati’s party to secure the votes he needed to win the presidency. This move has had his critics calling him “Megawati’s puppet”.

People-side pluralism and social movement

Amendments to the Constitution now provided the people with the freedom to organise and freedom of speech. As a result, a number of non-government organisations have sprouted, a feat that would have been impossible under Suharto’s authoritarian rule. Proponents of this thesis believe that increased civil liberties granted by democratisation would allow these NGOs and non-state actors to influence policy. This is true to an extent, as we have seen organisations such as Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) and Imparsial influencing public debate on policies. We have also seen these NGOs “guarding” democracy directly. The vote-counting process during the 2014 presidential election was independently monitored (via crowdsourcing) by volunteers at Kawal Pemilu, indicating an increased political awareness.

However, with the oligarchic system still in place, there is scepticism on the actual influence of these extra-state actors. Furthermore, increased civil liberties have also fostered the growth of extreme Islamist groups, which were once severely suppressed under New Order rule.

Decentered democracy

The decentered democracy thesis, which I’ll be learning throughout the course, basically strikes a centrist approach to interpreting post-Reformasi politics, between the oligarchs and the people. It is no doubt that Indonesia is a democracy because it has functioning elections and its supporting institutions. However, that democracy has yet to become a “true democracy” and is rather decentered due to the pervasive influence of the old oligarchs. However, this may be balanced out with the emergence of social movements and increasing pluralism in society due to increased civil liberties. It doesn’t discount the influence of extra-state actors in politics, arguing that with enough force, bottom-up change is possible.

A striking example is the rise of Jakarta’s incumbent governor, Basuki Purnama or Ahok. He’s not part of the old oligarchy; instead, he was a product of regional elections. When he was paired with Joko Widodo to serve as vice-governor (Joko Widodo also isn’t part of the old oligarchy), the two demonstrated that you didn’t have to be a part of the old oligarchs to make a change in Indonesia. Ahok’s current plans for fixing Jakarta have been widely successful, although his brash demeanour has been the target of dissatisfied beneficiaries of the old system. In this sense, Indonesia’s democracy is working, albeit slowly and being greatly skewed to the benefit of oligarchs.


In sum, I’ve gone through a wide array of interpretations of Indonesia’s modern politics. These interpretations range from the monistic (Anderson’s “nation/state continuity”) to the plural (Emmerson’s bureaucratic-authoritarian interpretation) for the New Order. These interpretations tend to focus more on the ruling elite commanded by Suharto and his inner circle, and how power is distributed among them. Some say that Suharto was patrimonial, others say that Suharto was like a dad distributing toys to his sons and daughters in the bureaucracy. New interpretations have emerged also in the post-Reformasi era which accounts for increasing democratisation and the role of the masses, which were largely ignored during the New Order. As such, it is interesting to see how Indonesian politics progresses as democratisation matures. I’d say that Indonesia will not become a liberal democracy as the West wants it to be so much. It will find its own form of democracy that suits it.



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